Storytelling Insights

  • Esther Choy

5 Tips for Asking for a Major Gift



This article originally appeared on the Guidestar blog.


You’re about to step up and speak to your supporters at your organization’s annual fundraising gala. You’re about to issue a “call for cash”—asking attendees to give anywhere from $1,000 to $25,000 more.


Last year, the gala’s donations fell shy of the targets, so the pressure is on. How do you ask for a major philanthropic gift in a way that makes your supporters eager to play a huge part in your organization’s success?


1. Start with their point of view, not yours.

With so much good that can be done in the world, volunteers and donors have to be choosy about which organizations they give their resources to. Often, their choice comes from a personal connection with a cause, which means that if they are at a gala event, they already have that connection. Now they want to relate to you based on how their identity meshes with what your organization does.


The best way to figure out those connections? Talk to your supporters! Ask:

  • When, how, and why did you get involved?

  • What’s kept you involved?

  • What aspects of your involvement have been the most rewarding?

As they share, ask follow up questions and listen well. Then you can tell a story that connects with their perspective.


Obviously, it’s hard to have these kinds of conversations in the middle of a gala. You’ll need to lay this groundwork in the weeks and months before the big day. But when you get in front of your supporters at the event, remember to frame your words from their point of view, not yours.


2. Identify a specific beneficiary.

Who are your supporters helping? They want to know! And while it’s good to mention the vast numbers of people you serve, don’t make that your focus.


Talk about the difference you have made for just one person. One personal story elicits greater empathy, and your listeners will realize you’ve helped many other people like this.


Select a client whose experience illustrates your organization’s impact, and then interview that client to learn the details of his or her story—especially what life was like before and after your organization began to help.


3. Show direct results and direct impact.

Before committing to a major philanthropic gift, supporters want to know how their investment will multiply. So show cases where your organization had a direct impact. What has been measurable? What has clearly been a result of your involvement?


4. Use a three-act formula.

If a house is well structured, you don’t wonder if the floor will hold you up; you simply enjoy being inside of it. So use a tried-and-true three-act formula for stories so your supporters don’t have to question the story structure and can pay attention to your message instead.

  • Act I: Start with a scene that introduces the protagonist and establishes a clear place and time. Then, end with a hook that will make the reader curious to know more.

  • Act II: Describe the protagonist’s journey to overcome the main challenge (with the help of your organization!).

  • Act III: Show the takeaways, emphasizing what the world will be like if your organization is able to reach its full potential.


5. Don’t forget to make a specific ask.

Sometimes nonprofit leaders forget this—or assume their audience will know what to do with the information provided. Far from it. You have to ask. And you have to ask them to meet concrete and realistic goals. Of course your audience will want to help you reach the end goal, but they can also take immediate next steps. Let them know what those next steps are so that they can contribute to your plan as it unfolds.

With this preparation, you’ll step up to the microphone with confidence, knowing that your supporters will see how far their donations are going and will want to give generously. Not only that, they’ll be looking forward to the stories at next year’s gala.


Asking for a major gift? Preparing for a big presentation? Contact us for business storytelling training! Leadership Story Lab trains and coaches managers in storytelling techniques to help them become more engaging and persuasive communicators. Whether you would like to stand out in the interview process, add punch to a presentation, or make a compelling case for a new initiative, we can help. Schedule a complimentary working session with us today!


Esther’s book, Let the Story Do the Work (published by HarperCollins Leadership), is now available!

Image credit: Pawel Loj via Flickr


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